Text by Matthew Lee
Fabriken Furillen might be the world’s least likely hotel. A disused limestone quarry and factory in a remote corner of the Swedish island of Gotland, it looks like the setting for a particularly bleak scene in an Ingmar Bergman film, which is exactly why its photographer owner fell in love with it.
“The first time I came to Furillen I could feel the magic,” says Johan Hellström, a fashion photographer from Gothenburg who discovered the 500-hectare peninsula in the 1990s when it was still a restricted military area. “It’s that weird industrial feeling, that empty building, all those pipes…. and that light. In the twilight, it’s just so spectacular.”
Hellström sneaked onto Furillen and started using the barren landscape of limestone, concrete and sand for his photoshoots. Since the army moved out, the peninsula’s unique brand of post-apocalyptic chic has appeared in more than 700 music videos, fashion spreads and more, many of them with Hellström behind the lens.
Hellström already had a holiday home on Gotland, yet it seemed a bold move when, in 1999, he decided to buy up all the land on Furillen and start planning a conversion of the eerie ghost town into a hotel and restaurant. After 20 years shooting models in Gothenburg, he quit and moved his family across.
“The only thing I cared about was my own opinion,” says Hellström, when asked about the wisdom of the move. “I follow my own taste, and if people like it I’m really proud and happy.”
It took three years to build Fabriken Furillen – though it opened partially in 2000 – and Hellström was careful to get the balance right: half industrial, half renovated. Renovate everything, he says, and you kill its soul. Most rooms are spacious (king-size beds, a workplace, a fireplace) but there are two small “hermit cabins” if you want to escape from the world. The restaurant – in the old factory canteen – only serves local food, and the hotel has its own farm and bakery, while guests can cycle round on sit-up Skeppshult bikes.
“It’s so healthy to fall asleep from tiredness and wake up with daylight,” says Hellström. “People who haven’t visited here ask me what there is to do. There’s so much nature, so many minor details to soak up. The nature is enough. It’s all you need.”
That interplay between nature and high design is something that Scandinavian hotel designers seem particularly adept at. Juvet hotel, which opened in 2010 on the Gudbrandsjuvet gorge about 90 minutes’ drive from Ålesund, is a series of stunning Modernist-inspired glass houses in the forest that bills itself as “Europe’s first landscape hotel” – even if owner and manager Knut Slinning admits it was just an expression that he dreamed up to help promote his creation.
“The idea is to build the biggest hotel room in the world,” he says. “We want to give people the feeling they’re sleeping outdoors. The rooms are very simple and minimalistic. It’s like being in a camera where the window is the lens.”
With help from the Norwegian government, keen to invest in projects that drew attention to the country’s 18 National Tourist Routes, Slinning converted a farm that hadn’t been touched in 25 years, hacking away the grass and turning the dilapidated cow shed into a dining room. Oslo architects Jensen & Skodvin devised cabins on stilts that almost work as camouflage, their presence only revealed when the sun bounces off the floor-to-ceiling windows. The hotel leaves almost no environmental footprint; if it ever closed down, it could disappear without a trace.
While Juvet’s rooms are hard to spot, there’s a room at Treehotel that is so hard to see it’s covered in infrared film to help birds avoid crashing into it. The Mirrorcube at Treehotel, a site in the woodlands of northern Sweden, reflects the trees and leaves around it in such a way it’s almost rendered invisible. Elsewhere in the woods there’s a cabin enveloped in a giant bird’s nest and a glowing UFO. It would all be a little tasteless if it didn’t blend so seamlessly into the forest.
“I’ve lived in this area my entire life and grew up around this wonderful nature,” says Britta Lindvall, who opened Brittas Pensionat with her husband Kent in 2004. The Tree Lover, a documentary by their friend Jonas Selberg Augustsén, inspired them to open a single treehouse room as a trial. “It wasn’t part of the hotel and we had to drive 16km just to prepare a bed,” Lindvall recalls. “But the guests loved living in a tree so we decided to expand the idea.”
In 2010, they commissioned architects Cyrén & Cyrén to design a cabin that appears to float in the trees. A big success, it was followed by four totally unique treerooms, all designed by some of Sweden’s top architects. And they’ve just opened The Dragonfly, a conference centre in a tree with two bedrooms. At 20 tonnes, it’s three times heavier than the next biggest room.
“Most of our guests come here to relax,” says Lindvall, “To be totally surrounded by nature is very romantic.”
So is there something particularly Scandinavian about fancy designs mingling with nature? Juvet’s Knut Slinning thinks so, especially in Norway. “The difference is that we have a lot of respect for nature. I mean, all of Norway is pretty much a national park – we have a policy of taking care of our environment. This was the poorest part of Europe 100 years ago. There were people on the land here trying to survive for centuries. Scandinavians understand you have to respect nature to survive.”
Norwegian flies to Visby, 45km from Fabriken Furillen; Ålesund, which is 84km from Juvet; and Luleå, 78km from Treehotel. Rent a car at norwegian.com